(Updated January 2014 - see note below)
Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions and Medical University for many years, have issued "White Papers." They are small booklets, up to 100 pages long, focused on medical topics ranging from Alzheimer's and memory problems, to prostate cancer, to diabetes and everything in between. They have typically been updated annually, sometimes more frequently.
Unlike other publications Johns Hopkins produces (e.g. "news alerts" and "health alerts") they are not free. Most cost $19.95 plus shipping and handling. You can order them online or you may receive postal mail enticing you to purchase them.
For most products we might order, that's the end of it. You order something. It arrives. The problem is that the way Johns Hopkins White Paper orders are set up, there is a clause you agree to - whether you want to or not - that provides you the "privilege" of an automatic renewal. In other words, when you make the purchase, you are really subscribing to a series - not purchasing just one. That creates problems for consumers who don't realize they have subscribed.
I want to order the Johns Hopkins White Paper about Arthritis which I can get for $19.95, plus $2.95 shipping AND I'll receive a FREE SPECIAL REPORT.
I input my name, address, etc. and then I have two choices - credit card or check. But both choices contain this clause:
Send me Arthritis White Paper Print Edition , PLUS my FREE SPECIAL REPORT Arthritis Special Report: Active Living With Arthritis, all for $19.95 (US) plus $2.95 shipping and handling. I’ll also receive all the automatic renewal benefits described below.
Did you read the second sentence? Here's the "automatic renewal benefit" description:
Automatic Renewal Benefits:
Annual updates will be offered to me by announcement letter. I need to do nothing if I wish the update to be sent automatically. If I do not want it, I will return the announcement letter marked "cancel". The update is completely optional and will never be sent without a prior announcement. If I wish to be removed from this list, I can contact customer service at any time via email, phone or by mail as indicated below.
Yes, when you pay for the first one, you are automatically -- no choice! -- telling them to send you the subsequent ones. You are ordering a subscription to white papers - not just one white paper. Granted, they warn you before it arrives. But if you don't understand what's happening, you will get the new ones, and be billed for them.
We were first alerted to this one-time-order-vs-subscription problem in March 2009, after a blog post about another questionable marketing effort of Johns Hopkins. Readers began to complain that hey were receiving additional white papers and they didn't want them. Further, when they tried to return them, or complained about the bills, they were not getting the help they needed to fix the situation.
As complaints came in, I contacted Johns Hopkins, and learned that Johns Hopkins itself does not do the marketing for the white papers. Yes, they are Johns Hopkins professionals whose names are on them. But another company called Remedy Media (formerly Medizine) actually handles all the writing, publication, marketing and distribution of these white papers.
Over the next almost two years, we got random complaints. Then in January 2011 - almost two years later - several new complaints came in at the same time. So I contacted Johns Hopkins again, complaining that no matter what they had posted about helping fix these customer service problems back in 2009, there continued to be people who felt they were not being served well.
I learned Remedy Health had a new CEO, Mike Cunnion. We spent a long phone call discussing the problems that were reported, and possible fixes for them. Mike seemed to sincerely want to correct them. As a follow up, he wrote me a letter to share with readers. Here is an excerpt:
For more than 20 years, we’ve worked closely with many of Johns Hopkins’ leading medical experts to produce some of the best consumer health information products in the world; maintaining the exceptional quality of those products is our top priority. In addition, we greatly value the trust and long-standing relationships we have with our customers and take our commitment to service very seriously.
In that spirit, we want to pass along phone numbers and an email address that will connect callers directoy to a representative who can address specific questions related to their account. (Note to readers - see steps to take to stop the arrival of Johns Hopkins White Papers and their associated bills.)
Since we first became aware of the concerns you raise, we have been reviewing our marketing policies, products, and customer service policies. As a result, we’ve made several changes to our process and products. We’ve added new leadership in key areas, instituted a number of new customer service policies and converted several of our products to digital downloads, which streamlines and simplifies the buying and fulfillment process.
Your input—and the feedback from your readers—is incredibly helpful to us as we strive for excellence.
Update: January 2014: At the time this was originally posted, I added, "It seems Remedy Health is sincerely interested in fixing these billing problems for its Johns Hopkins White Paper subscribers."
However - they have proved that they were not at all sincere. Here's more.
If you have bills or white papers you did not expect to receive, see Steps to Take to Stop the Arrival of Bills for Johns Hopkins White Papers.
Should you continue to have problems with these subscriptions, please report them here.